In 1964, while a student in UCLA’s graduate program in painting and sculpture, artist Judy Chicago enrolled in auto-body school—the only woman in a class of 250 men. They were all there to learn how to custom-paint cars with candy-colored lacquer finishes and pinstriped detail work, hallmarks of the hot-rod car culture of Southern California in the 1960s.
Chicago’s Car Hood, featured in the exhibition Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture, 1950–1970, was her final project: an early ‘60s Chevrolet Corvair car hood sprayed with glossy acrylic lacquer. In her 1977 memoir, Through the Flower: My Struggle as a Woman Artist, she described the gendered symbolism of Car Hood: “the vaginal form, penetrated by a phallic arrow, was mounted on the ‘masculine’ hood of a car, a very clear symbol of my state of mind at the time.”
Judy Chicago (then known by her married name, Judy Gerowitz) was an ambitious female artist trying to fit in with the male-dominated Ferus Gallery scene by “digging in” through “tough talk,” spray paint, and motorcycles. Among her colleagues, painter Billy Al Bengston borrowed spray-painting techniques from the world of motorcycle finishing (he was an avid racer), and John Chamberlain incorporated used car parts in his wall-mounted sculptures.
Despite her gender-crossing efforts, Chicago was met with blatant chauvinism. She was often told that a woman artist could not be taken seriously unless her work looked like it had been made by a man. This experience led her to question the ways women had been discouraged throughout history from expressing their own experiences, in art and all aspects of society. With other like-minded women artists, she went on to be a pioneering figure in the Feminist Art Movement that flourished in the 1970s. Chicago would create the Feminist Art Program at Cal State University Fresno (1970–71) and CalArts (1971–72), where female students engaged in consciousness-raising sessions and collaborative performances and installations that explored female experience.
Is it still a man’s world for artists working today?
The statistics are damning—while approximately half the graduates of art programs are women, there is still a glass ceiling for women artists. According to recent statistics from the National Endowment for the Arts, women artists earn about 75¢ for every dollar male artists earn, despite having more schooling on average than their male peers. And older women fare even worse: once they hit 55, they earn only 60¢ on the dollar.
Who is taking up the mantle of feminism in today’s art world? Since 1985, feminist activist group the Guerrilla Girls have graphically articulated gender (and racial) inequality in the art world through their posters and actions. The Guerrilla Girls’ records from 1979 to 2003 now reside in the special collections of the Getty Research Institute, but the group is still going strong around the world—as are other feminist artists, including Chicago herself.
While we’ve come a long way since the 1960s, when Judy Chicago was told that she couldn’t be a woman and an artist, this Guerrilla Girls’ poster—created in 1988 but still relevant today—reminds us of the oft-invisible struggle of women artists.
What do you think? Is the art world still a man’s world, or is chauvinism a thing of the past?
Question of the Week is a series inspired by our Masterpiece of the Week tours. Featuring an open and upbeat discussion among visitors and gallery teachers, the tours feature a new object and pose a new question each week. Chicago’s Car Hood is the object for December 6–11, 2011.